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The number of American children on the autism spectrum increases every year. New Jersey diagnosticians are finding that 1 in every 54 children has ASD. If you’re a teacher, you’re likely to teach a child with autism. Parents feel frustrated when their child’s teacher does not understand what makes their child tick, and teachers feel helpless when they cannot guide their students to achieve success at school.
Working with children with autism brings a huge amount of joy, like any endeavor which takes effort and grit. But only for those who embrace the challenge and learn how to succeed with a child that has unique needs. As the new school year approaches, let’s take a moment to prepare for a successful year at school.
Teachers, prepare to help every child succeed this year!
If you are a teacher, read on for tips on helping your student with autism succeed in school, but first, remember this. Just because you’re told a child in your class has autism, it doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of being academically successful. In fact, if you’re kind, patient, and persistent when working with your student, you’ll eventually discover that there’s much more to your student than their neurological disorder and undesired behaviors. Children with autism are talented, smart, and creative. Give the child’s parents reason to be happy that they shared the diagnosis with you instead of feeling disappointed (like so many of their friends share) that you used the diagnosis to label and absolve yourself from trying to help.
So, without further delay, here are five ways you, as a teacher, can help children with autism and guide them in unlocking their inner potential:
1. Focus on the positives
Studies show that positive reinforcement is much more effective than punishment or other forms of discipline. In other words, rewarding positive behaviors in children with autism is better than punishing their undesired behaviors. That’s because praising them makes them (and you) feel good, which increases the likelihood that they’ll repeat those positive behaviors.
Also, punishment can damage a child’s physical and mental health in the long run, so if you want them to develop positive behaviors, positive reinforcement would be the way to go.
Rather than zeroing in on a child’s undesired behaviors and judging them by their past behaviors or developments, look for things to enjoy and appreciate about your student. For example, does your student with autism happen to be good at reading comprehension? If so, let them know, and you can even look for ways to incorporate that into other academic areas they may struggle with.
Letting your student know about their strengths and positive qualities, as well as using positive reinforcement, will be an excellent way to encourage and motivate your student.
And don’t forget to accept the child for the way they are. Instead of trying to change who they are on a fundamental level, try to teach them in a way that’s tailored to their special needs and allows them to make progress in the classroom.
2. Be specific with your behavior
Whenever you’re praising and positively reinforcing your student with autism, make sure the child knows exactly which behavior you’re praising and what exactly you like about their behavior. Otherwise, your student may get confused about which of their behaviors are considered positive or undesired, which may impede your student’s educational progress. For example, rather than saying, “thanks for being helpful” try saying, “thanks for picking up my pencil”.
And, going back to what we said about positive reinforcement, find ways you can reward your student. This may involve giving them extra playtime or rewarding them with more tokens or gold stars on their reward charts.
3. Keep conversations focused and simple.
Because children with autism tend to take things literally, idioms and phrasal verbs are confusing. Try to keep directions and conversations simple and focused. Phrases that neurotypical children (those without autism) may think are literal and easy to understand but actually aren’t include:
- “What’s up with you?” (Instead, you can ask, “How are you feeling?”)
- “I’m all ears.” (Instead, you can say, “I’m listening.”)
- “That’s a piece of cake.” (Instead, you can say, “That’s very easy to do.”)
Keep directions and conversations simple and focused. This means instead of giving long-winded reasons and explanations, use simple language so as not to overwhelm the child. For example, instead of saying “it’s important that you always keep your desk clear of any food, drink supplies, or toys so that you can learn well”, simply say, “Put nothing on your desk”.
Also, children with autism may not be able to understand your nonverbal communications, so don’t immediately assume they can understand all your facial expressions and gestures.
For example, instead of turning your nose up or expecting that a glance in their direction will be enough to convey your intent, clearly say, “Put away the snack” or “We don’t color on our desks” or whatever you’re trying to convey to the child.
4. Provide a supportive environment for the child
Children with autism often feel overwhelmed or overstimulated by their surroundings. As a teacher, you can help students with autism thrive in your classroom by keeping the environment calm and emotionally supportive.
Students with autism also perform best in familiar environments, so bear that in mind whenever you’re considering changing up a learning routine, moving their desk, or replacing the decorations in your classroom. You may decide to forgo the change for his sake, or you may want to prepare him in advance so he knows what to expect. Either way, don’t try to force change on him, but rather be flexible to create an environment that takes his needs into consideration
After all, you want to provide a conducive environment for your children to learn and thrive, and this applies to children with autism as well as neurotypical children.
5. Be patient when giving instructions
Children with autism, who often have difficulty following verbal explanations, need more time to process complex verbal commands. And, as we already established, it’s important to keep your instructions simple and focused.
You should also remember that younger children often struggle to understand instructions, and that may make them seem uncooperative. In reality, their “uncooperative” behavior may actually be an inability to understand your verbal instructions, so always keep that possibility in mind.
As a teacher, working with children with autism can be uniquely challenging, but thankfully there are many ways you can support our growing autism population and put them on a trajectory to academic success. From focusing on their positive qualities to being specific when positively reinforcing them to adapting the way you communicate to fostering a strong supportive environment, you can unlock your student’s inner strengths, open doors of opportunity, and help them thrive and succeed in the long run.
Want to know how else you can help your child? Get in touch with Circle Care so we can show you all the services we provide. And don’t forget to join our email list so you can gain some helpful information about ABA and parenting tips for those who have children with autism.